“There’s a global reach these islands have,” says Soledad Garcia-Ferrari, a professor at the University of Edinburgh and member of the Galapagos Living Lab for Energy Innovation, an initiative set up last year by national and international stakeholders.
“We have to use it to promote sustainability and equality, to have just food and energy systems on the Galapagos. That’s the purpose of what we are trying to do.”
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Until the 19th century, the Galapagos had no permanent human inhabitants. But since people began living here, it has been a challenge to make life sustainable on the arid, volcanic archipelago. As a result of the rise of population and mass tourism in the 1950s, an increasing amount of resources, including gasoline and food staples, has been imported from the Ecuadorian mainland.
But in recent years, there has been a growing movement to transform the Galapagos into a beacon of sustainability. Over the past two decades, more than $72 million has been spent in constructing renewable energy sites, including the San Cristóbal Island Wind Project, which in 2007 became the first large-scale wind project in Ecuador — as part of the Zero Fossil Fuels in the Galapagos effort. More recently, the Galapagos Plan 2030 was launched to achieve several UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the Galapagos 2040 Vision set out the aim of net-zero across the archipelago by 2040, with a focus on equitable access to water, food and energy for locals.
“We have to really engage with local communities over how they see the transition and what they feel is important,” says Garcia-Ferrari, who worked with local contacts between 2019 and 2021 to survey residents across the Galapagos.
The pandemic, which halted incoming flights and ships, proved a compelling argument for maximizing self-sufficiency. In the blink of an eye, tourism disappeared and tour guides, once the breadwinners of many households, lost all their income.
“There was a lot of barter trade at the time,” says Sarah Naismith, a resident of San Cristóbal who supported Garcia-Ferrari with interviews during the lockdown. “The people here had to work together and survive by their own means.”
These days, no fresh meat or dairy is imported — chicken, beef, yogurt and cheese are all produced locally. Coffee is grown in the highlands of the islands. And if the local tomatoes are in season, then others can’t be brought in from elsewhere.
But locals have long been at the heart of making the Galapagos a more sustainable place. Patricio Proaño, director of the campaign group, Fundación un Cambio por la Vida (A Change for Life Foundation), was inspired to campaign to make bicycles the local transport of the islands after he lost his son in a vehicle accident in 2009.
“Galapagos was losing its north,” says Proaño, who lives on the island of Santa Cruz. “I wanted to turn this moment of pain into something of love that could make all of our lives better.”
Since then, off the back of Proaño’s efforts, 42 kilometers of cycle paths have been built, and a Mobility Plan for the Galapagos has been launched — even if the use of cars is still for now widespread. Proaño argues that they should all go electric.